If ever there is a movie begging for a 3-hour cut, the Ben Affleck-directed movie adaptation of, “Live By Night” is it. Here is a sprawling, epic tale in which some inspired, lively direction lays out a story that is scattershot and grimy in parts but ends too clean for a tale about a man’s journey into a life of crime. But what really sinks the movie is how one can tell the director Ben Affleck is pouring his all into it. He’s the director, writer, and is one of the movie’s producer, plus he’s the lead actor. And man, can you tell how thinly Ben Affleck stretched himself here. Don’t get me wrong, the movie at times has extended moments of brutal, beautiful inspiration (and even a few plot threads/themes that hits upon some welcome topicality), but sadly it feels like a movie destined for repeat runs on TNT or some other basic Cable/Satellite TV channel (assuming those things still exist after I finish writing this).
The story centers on Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) a veteran of World War I who takes a vow to, “not take orders”…after which he gets involved in some gangster business between Irish mobster Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Italian mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Oh, and he gets involved with White’s lover Emma Gould (Sienna Miller) and also gets into arguments with his father who just happens to be a police chief (a great Brendan Gleason). And this is just the first third of the story.
Then something happens, and Ben Affleck’s character is in Florida, working for Maso Pescatore to get revenge on Albert White, assisted by longtime friend Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) as he builds a Rum empire in Prohibition years while blackmailing a corrupt cop played by Chris Cooper, whose daughter (played by Elle Fanning) is revealed to have drug addiciton, while hooking up with a Cuban rum maker played by musician Miguel and his sister played by Zoe Saldana…while also fighting the KKK, which leads to him the brother of said corrupt cop played by Matthew Maher. He’s taken out of the picture, but Elle Fanning’s character finds Jesus and begins preaching against all forms of sin, including not just Joe’s Rum Empire but also his dream of building a huge casino that never materializes because of the backlash such an opening would cause from Florida’s religious majority. Oh, and Ben Affleck’s character has a monologue about how crime is the only refuge for the oppressed minority (read: anyone but white protestant men) and how the American Dream is a lie, in a way that positions his character has being something of a, “noble” gangster despite him being involved in multiple murders.
Then someone else from Joe’s past (the third act of this movie) somehow comes back while another character is taken out of the picture and Joe finds himself confronted by both Maso Pescatore and Albert White at the same time. Then a shootout occurs, Joe is somehow left off the hook for everything while his longtime friend takes over the business and then dies offscreen. Finally a long happy ending after another character close to Joe dies by Chris Cooper’s character’s hand, with extended sequences of him raising his son and him opening a center for battered women and girls.
See what I mean about this being a mess? There is a so much going on, here. It’s the story worthy of a novel (hell, this movie IS based on a Dennis Lehane novel), or at least a multi-season TV series. The entire first act is a movie in itself, with some great acting from Sienna Miller and even a great car chase that somehow manages to make Ford Model-T cars look and feel dangerous, and everything else after that is no slouch, either. Cinematographer Robert Richardson, editor William Goldenberg and the art direction/production team work with multi-hyphenate Ben Affleck to accomplish the difficult task of making the stuffy, stiff period movie feel vibrant, textured and dangerous. But it’s all spread thinner than butter on toast. None of the characters gets any real sense of grounding or depth, and even Ben Affleck’s leading character feels like a parody of 1920s Prohibition gangsters that someone forgot to add a punchline to.
What kills the movie is that despite Ben Affleck’s obvious passion, the film just feels limp because it’s so in love with its main character that it never truly allows him to get neck deep into the shit. Yes, people die, Joe gets involved in heinous shit, he blackmails a cop with compromising photos of his daughter, and he even kills a KKK member played by Matthew Maher, except Maher’s character is such a cartoonishly violent, ugly person that one can tell he’s dead the moment we hear him speak. In fact, the movie seems to bend over backwards just to have Joe be somehow, “justified” in doing all of this. It reminds one of Hannah Arendt’s writing about how soldiers are propped up by some idea of a kind of duty, of how heavy their horrendous actions are in the name of a just cause. Except Ben Affleck’s character outright tells the viewer that they had to do horrendous stuff in World War I in the name of false ideas of patriotism, and while he outright tells us that he’s never going to take orders again…minutes after a falling out with Albert White, he’s taking orders from Maso Pescatore just to indulge his bloodthirst. A better, more self-aware movie would have emphasized that point, perhaps pointing out his hypocrisy in the road to righting a vendetta. Hell, the movie even has Zoe Saldana’s character give an extended monologue about Joe becoming a different person, but plot contrivances get in the way of the audience actually seeing those changes. Instead characters die offscreen, with the audience informed by either banter between characters or by Ben Affleck’s bizarrely sleepy narration explaining to us what we just saw.
I wish I could muster up the same amount of passion in writing about this movie that Ben Affleck and company must’ve had when they started this project, but the movie feels so compromised, bloated and thin that there isn’t much to say in spite of its themes. It feels like someone just copied and pasted parts from different screenplays that just so happen to be set in the 1920s, and then forgot to add connective tissue between them. But there are moments of brilliance that make me pine for the release of an, “Extended Edition” version of this movie, however cynical such a business move would be by Warner Brothers. One would think that a movie like this would have more joy and energy than Ben Affleck’s contracted role as Batman/Bruce Wayne, but for a personal passion project Directed, produced and written by the actor himself, what we’re getting feels oddly like dozens of other, interchangeable movies one catches on evening TV while dosing off. Let this one in the dark alone.
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